Man of La Mancha, book by Dale Wasserman, Lyrics by Joe Darion, Music by Mitch Leigh. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman,
Tom Alan Robbins as Sancho Panza & Jeff McCarthy as Don Quixote; photo: Kevin Sprague
"If every man would weave a dream to keep him from despair. . ."
Aldonza and the Muleteers with Felicia Boswell and Joseph Torello (r); photo: Kevin Sprague
In 1965 Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in for his official first term as an elected President. Joan Rivers made her debut on the Tonight Show; Operation Rolling Thunder began a 3 1/2 year bombing assault on North Vietnam; The Beatles performed at Shea Stadium (a first in concert history); The President spoke his "We shall overcome" speech; Unicef won the Nobel Peace Prize; and a new song emerged as an anthem of the times, replacing the title song from "Camelot" which had ushered folks through the Kennedy years. It was "The Impossible Dream" from the new musical "Man of La Mancha."
Truth seemed to be the unspoken motto of the day but even without close examination there was something just a bit off, a bit untrue about the Don Quixote musical that had originated at the tiny Connecticut Goodspeed Opera House. I was nineteen at the time and I didn't buy the basic story of this show. Fifty years and nine other productions of it and I still have trouble with the adaptation by Dale Wasserman. I knew that Miguel de Cervantes, already a published poet and playwright, had conceived of the idea for his great novel while in prison in La Mancha when he invested government money with a broker who went bankrupt. I also knew that he had only published part one of the story by 1605. The second book wasn't published until ten years later.
Set in a prison in 1605 this show tells us that all but the ending of the book had been written before Cervantes was arrested by the Inquisition for tax collection crimes against the church. While he had been a tax collector that fact seemed, and turned out to be, not factual enough to base a musical play on and while it certainly wasn't uncommon to screw around with history for a stage show it bugged me. It still does, even though I know nothing can be done about it.
In its latest production, at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA, director Julianne Boyd has taken the Wasserman version of Cervantes' experience in prison and whittled away the humor to emphasize the pathos and the darkness of it all. It was always a dark story, don't get me wrong, but there was humor and lightness in it which seems to have been beheaded altogether. Three characters in particular have been "adjusted" in this current edition to remove any hint of humor: the barber, Dr. Carasco, and most obviously, Sancho Panza.
The barber has been a bit of a buffoon from the first production and his devotion to his shaving bowl/hat always leant a touch of humor to a difficult point in the play. That is lost here in part through the very serious reaction to everything that is happening by Sancho Panza. Jonathan Spivey sings and acts the barber role very well and cannot be faulted for missing the laughs that have generally given his scene a nice emotional relief. Similarly the attitudes of Dr. Carasco have generally been a bit over-the-top climaxed by his Knight of the Mirrors episode. I think this has always worked so well because the doctor is being played by The Duke, a dark, prosecutorial prisoner of the dungeons. In these two roles is Sean MacLaughlin, a fine actor who presents a totally dark and serious celebrant of sanity in both of his roles. In a way, the director has denied him greater range that would have been effective. This choice is also effective just not to the point where Carasco gives us more than he should.
It is the Sancho Panza of Tom Alan Robbins that presents the greatest problem for the work. I've seen him before and he's a lovely actor, but his Sancho has none of the simplicity, the mindless devotion or the insane humor that is usually presented in this part. Always erring on the side of simple reality it is Sancho's devotion to his "master" that takes the musical into the light level it so desperately needs from time to time. Wasserman's book is dark enough with the Inquisition interrupting and the concept of Cervantes losing his only copy of his fledgling book to ruffians. Without the lightness of Sancho the show is only about the darkness in life in Spain in the early 1600s. Even the whimsical aspects of the errant knight lose their effectiveness when all around him is dark and somber and serious and sober.
Jonathan Spivey and Sean MacLaughlin; photo: Kevin Sprague
Joe Darion's wonderful lyrics are the heart of the show, and the best single element in it. Mitch Leigh's relentless score is all-too-similar from song to song but the combination of these two talents did produce some beautiful and memorable pieces beyond "The Impossible Dream." The title song has drive and srength while the serenade "Little Bird, Little Bird" is quite effective. The Padre's ballad "To Each His Dulcinea" is probably the best song in the show, especially as performed here by Todd Horman. "What Does He Want of Me" and "Aldonza" sung by Felicia Boswell playing Aldonza are brilliant soliloquies in music. All of the ensembles are marvelous and this company and its nine-piece pit band perform it all to perfection.
Jeff McCarthy is an excellent Quixote. Just under 60 at the time of this play, Cervantes is getting the benefit of a vivid portrayal by this actor. The traditional look of Quixote, defined to perfection by 19th century illustrator Gustave Dore, is well-imitated here by McCarthy and even though it is loosely based on the only portrait of Cervantes himself, it is not clear that this is the look of the lonely Spaniard at the center of the story. So much else in this show is based on imagination it isn't a surprise to find that Boswell gets to sing the final reprise of Cervantes/Quixote's anthem in her Aldonza guise. It's another of those moments I find hard to live with, but she does it well, even though her voice (opening night) was suddenly gravelly and off-pitch (I called it acting when I spoke of it later at dinner).
Some other rough things which should smoothe out with the playing: Ryan Winkles usually fine fight choreography seemed slipshod, stagey and faulty. Some startling light cues cut into any display of reality (I'd suggest cutting the star drop and the sun-burst). The entire company would profit from watching the expert and professional performance of Ed Dixon as the Governor/Innkeeper. He was superb and Meg Bussert brought her unique reality to the role of Dixon's wife and Quixote's housekeeper.
As dark musicals go this one seems to hold the reins on a team of wild horses. Boyd's vision is very specific and I'm not sure how the authors would take to it, even fifty years later. Standing ovations happened spontaneously at the curtain calls and that usually triggers a happiness like nothing else in the theater. I guess I've seen too many of them to believe in them any longer. There was a lot to like in this show (McCarthy, Dixon, Boswell, Bussert, the flamenco guitar of Eric Despard, Horman and the singing of the physically powerful Joseph Torello), but I didn't think there was enough for that.
I've been wrong before. I admit that. People will most likely enjoy this show, especially if they've never seen it before and have very little knowledge of the facts of Cervantes' life. In fact, you should ignore the truths that made this show such a success in its time, that made the song so important and relevant to the politics of the day. You should just indulge yourself, go to Barrington Stage and live vicariously for one hour and 45 minutes in the atmosphere of a 1605 Seville prison. You won't get that chance every year.
Jeff McCarthy and Tom Alan Robbins; photo: Kevin Sprague
Man of La Mancha plays at Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Stage located at 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA through July 11. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line at www.barringtonstageco.org.